We moved from 2G to 3G and then very quickly to 3G+. When you consider that our first-generation wireless systems were in place for almost 20 years, the eight or nine years it is has taken us to evolve to these newest technologies is quite amazing.
Now, even before all of the 3G systems have been upgraded to 3G+ -- and even though some countries such as Canada, China, and India are only now beginning to roll out 3G systems -- we are looking at what is being called "4G," or the next evolution of wireless broadband.
As Clearwire and Sprint see it, today's WiMAX is a 4G technology, while others believe LTE is the first real 4G technology and that WiMAX-M, when it arrives, will be 4G. Just for the record, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITC), the authority on such things, neither WiMAX nor LTE are truly a 4G technology.
The ITC believes that LTE advanced and, perhaps, the follow-on generation of WiMAX-M might meet its definition of 4G technology. Whatever you call today's WiMAX and LTE, they are definitely next-generation systems when contrasted to the current 3G systems.
WiMax and LTE were both developed, first and foremost, for broadband data, and they are both IP-based systems. The data speeds are faster than in older generation technology, but in the case of WiMAX, not all that much faster, ranking somewhere between 3G and 3G+ systems. LTE is supposed to be faster -- but, as with any new technology, we will have to wait until we have enough systems installed and being used under loaded conditions to know how it will perform in the real world.
If we view both WiMAX and LTE as predominantly data systems (with voice capabilities at some point), there are some implications for the business community. Both WiMAX and LTE provide additional capacity over standard 3G systems, and both are designed to provide faster data speeds. But this is where the similarities end. WiMAX is being built out in major metro areas by Clearwire and Sprint, and is being sold as a wireless replacement for DSL and cable as well as a mobile broadband technology.
Again, today's data speeds are about on a par with existing 3G systems, and while the two companies are moving ahead with their build-outs, there is no indication that this system will ever have a true nationwide footprint, nor that there will ever be as many device options available for it as there are for 3G.
Today, in the U.S., you can purchase a device that provides WiMAX service where it is available and fall back to Sprint's 3G network in areas where there is no WiMAX coverage.
In most of the rest of the world, WiMAX is being used as a point-to-multipoint wireless technology to move broadband where there is none, rather than as the sixth, seventh, or eighth broadband competitor in an urban market.
LTE is just starting to gain traction, and the most aggressive build-out plan in the United States is certainly that of Verizon Wireless in 2010, with AT&T following later. In the rest of the world, NTT DoCoMo in Japan is the leader in Asia, while some European network operators seem to be content with upgrading to 3G+ services for now.
However, the most important aspect of a new technology is the support it gathers around the world. In this case, LTE is certainly the migration path of choice for more than 98% of the wireless operators.This is important, especially to the business community because it means there will be plenty of different types of devices for providing service where LTE has been built out.
These devices also will be capable of 3G and 2G voice and data services. For the next few years, most LTE-capable devices will use the already built-out 2G and 3G networks for voice service, reserving LTE for those who need its fast data speeds and expanded capacity. This is also important from a cost and implementation point of view.
Because there will be a broader range of device offerings on LTE than on WiMAX, and because there will be a large demand for LTE multi-mode devices, prices for these devices will fall quickly. In a very short time, they will be comparably priced with today's 3G-capable devices. Another very real difference between WiMAX (as it is being built by Clearwire and Sprint) and LTE (as it is being built by Verizon and AT&T) has to do with the spectrum available for each. The LTE systems are being built in a new swath of spectrum at 700 MHz, where TV stations used to be licensed. The Clearwire/Sprint system uses the 2.5 GHz spectrum.
There is a real advantage for LTE because the 700 MHz spectrum is considered to be ideal for broadband services. Fewer cell sites have to be built and penetration into buildings is better at 700 MHz. According to most radio experts, for every cell site built at 700 MHz, four to five sites must be built to provide the same coverage on 2.5 GHz spectrum. A device equipped with LTE, 2G, and 3G services can be used almost anywhere in the world.
A combination Clearwire WiMAX and Sprint 3G device severely limits use beyond the United States for two reasons:
- WiMAX will not be widely built out in most countries
- Sprint's 3G service is not compatible with the 3G services provided in much of the rest of the world.
It could be argued that Sprint's 3G technology is the same as that used by Verizon. However, Verizon is already offering world phone products and many of its LTE products will include support for 3G in Europe (Verizon is partially owned by Vodafone, a large European network operator).
Hype about next-generation technology is still running rampant in the wireless industry. The most important economic consideration when choosing which to deploy is determining which will offer your enterprise the widest coverage with the largest variety of devices at the best prices.
Today, that answer is LTE. LTE networks and devices will become available in many major cities in 2010. By 2011, LTE should be solidly established in most of the United States. Verizon Wireless is being very aggressive with its build, which will push AT&T to move quickly as well.
The first LTE devices will be in the form of USB dongles for notebooks, followed by notebooks and netbooks with embedded LTE, followed probably in 2012 by smartphones and other devices. Most if not all of these LTE-capable devices will also provide at least 3G capabilities as well.
If yours is a data-intensive shop, 2010 will be a good year to start your pilots, and by 2012, you should be able to have your entire fleet on LTE almost anywhere in the United States.
Andrew M. Seybold is CEO/Principal Consutant of Andrew M. Seybold, Inc.